The Tech Revolutionizing Cancer Research and Care
What once seemed impossible in cancer research is now a reality thanks to a number of technological innovations that have led to breakthroughs in the ways we find, visualize, understand, and treat cancer. Continuing to explore and use these technologies can open the door to accelerate progress against this disease.
Revolutionizing gene editing
Researchers never imagined being able to quickly and easily change the genetic code of living cells. But now that’s possible with CRISPR, which works like a pair of scissors that can precisely delete, insert, or edit specific bits of DNA inside cells. The discovery of this revolutionary gene-editing tool emerged from a side project fueled by curiosity about how bacteria fight viruses. After making key discoveries about CRISPR, Drs. Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier won a Nobel Prize in 2020. A year earlier, the first US clinical trial of a CRISPR-made cancer immunotherapy began, and more studies are exploring CRISPR-made cancer treatments. Additionally, trials are starting to test using CRISPR directly in the body. While it is a game-changer, CRISPR still has its limitations and debate continues around the ethics of gene editing. But one thing is clear—CRISPR is a powerful tool that could help make significant progress, in cancer research and beyond.
Read more about how CRISPR is changing cancer research and treatment.
Computer programming used to improve cancer diagnosis, drug development, and precision medicine
What if a computer simulation could create a virtual model of you, a “digital twin” that physicians could use to “explore” treatments and predict possible outcomes before presenting you with personalized care options? It’s no longer science fiction, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence (AI). AI involves programming a computer to act, reason, and learn. It’s great at finding patterns in large amounts of data, which is particularly helpful in scientific research. NCI, the Department of Energy, the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research, and a transdisciplinary group of investigators are using AI to advance development of digital twins for people with cancer. Others use it to analyze imaging data and electronic health records to tailor patients’ radiation doses. AI is even being harnessed to quickly analyze population-based cancer data and estimate the probability of certain cancers. And these examples just scratch the surface—AI has the potential to truly transform cancer care.
Bringing cancer care, treatment, and clinical trials to the patient
Providing cancer care and running clinical trials are necessities, even during a pandemic. Many health care organizations participating in the NCI Community Oncology Research Program (NCORP) successfully incorporated or expanded telehealth practices to provide patients’ cancer treatment and care remotely. These hospitals and clinics are maximizing safety and convenience for both patients and providers across the country by using telehealth for remote health monitoring, video visits, and even in-home chemotherapy. Telehealth also makes access to clinical trials and cancer care easier for more diverse groups of patients across wider geographical areas. Outside of cancer care, you might’ve taken advantage of telehealth practices and contributed to the nearly one-third of health visits performed virtually last year. Despite its growing popularity, not all care can be performed remotely. Ensuring that remote health care technology is used equitably comes with challenges, but researchers are working to address them.
Clinical trial participants like Marilyn have had positive experiences using telehealth. Read her story.
Generating high-resolution images of how molecules behave to help inform cancer treatment
You might think the latest iPhone has an amazing camera, but maybe you haven’t heard about cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). Cryo-EM captures images of molecules that are ten-thousandths the width of a human hair, at resolutions so high they were unheard of just a decade ago. Like sorting through multiple candid photos before posting the “good” ones on social media, researchers analyze hundreds of thousands of cryo-EM images for quality, reconstructing 3-D images of molecules that allow scientists to study how they behave. For cancer, this means better understanding how cancer cells survive, grow, and interact with therapies and other cells. Just recently at the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research, cryo-EM showed how a drug for chronic myeloid leukemia interacts with ribosomes (a molecular machine inside cells) and in the process developed the most detailed view of a human ribosome to date—an achievement that could inform the creation of treatments for cancer and other diseases.
Visit the National Cryo-Electron Microscopy Facility's page to learn how NCI is expanding access to this technology.
Providing important insights into how genetic variations relate to cancer
What can genotyping, a technology that reads and compares genes across people, tell us about cancer? Used by companies like 23andMe and Ancestry, the Infinium Assay, developed by Illumina, is a process and set of tools that analyzes millions of single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, the most common type of genetic variation. SNPs can help map genes that cause cancer and provide insight into cancer risk, progression, and development. Initially met with skepticism about whether this technology was technically feasible, the assay was created with support from NCI’s Small Business Innovation Research program and is a compelling instance of taxpayer-funded innovation. The assay is now used in a wide range of applications—from ancestry reports and cancer research, to NIH’s All of Us Research Program, and even to analyzing a plant’s genome to see what influences insect and drought resistance.
Learn more about how NCI partners with small businesses to advance innovations in cancer research and care.
Using robotic arms to perform precise, minimally invasive surgeries to remove cancer
A speedier recovery and quicker return to normal life—that’s what robotic surgery can make possible. For instance, someone with prostate cancer may need their prostate gland removed (a prostatectomy), and what once required making a large incision from navel to pubic bone can now be performed with the assistance of robotic arms that enter the body through small incisions. A surgeon controls the arms using a special console that also provides a real-time, magnified view of the surgical site. Robotic surgery involves less blood loss and pain, and in the prostatectomy example, a patient could leave the hospital as soon as the day after surgery. While the robotic arms may look straight out of a futuristic movie, in a setting where just millimeters could stand between removing all cancerous tissue and potentially injuring healthy tissue, their fine, precise motions can make a world of difference.
Learn more about robotic surgery.
The signing of the National Cancer Act of 1971 began a golden age of cancer research, which includes the discovery and development of technologies and innovations that have enabled progress. Find out more about the act.
Data, communications technology, next-generation DNA sequencing and more have helped accelerate NCI's mission over the past 50 years. Listen to Healthcast’s National Cancer Act podcast series to learn about technology’s role in fighting cancer.